YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Bishops in Eastern Africa have honoured the first pope to visit the continent, just months before he is declared a saint.

Blessed Pope Paul VI was described as a pope who “showed love for Africa” during the 19th Plenary Assembly of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa, or AMECEA, taking place in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

The organization is made up of the eight national bishops’ conferences of nine countries: Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, South Sudan, Sudan [the two Sudans share a conference], Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. Djibouti and Somalia are affiliate members.

Paul VI became the first modern pope to visit Africa, when he went to Uganda from July 31-August 2, 1969.

His 1967 Apostolic Letter Africae Terrarum – in which Paul emphasized the need for African values to be respected, advocating for development to be driven through local initiatives and challenged the African Church to devise “new ways of becoming missionaries to themselves” – was a topic of discussion for the bishops during their meeting.

“Blessed Pope Paul VI is one of the popes who manifested great love for Africa … AMECEA took shape under his pontificate,” said Tanzanian Archbishop Protase Rugambwa, the Secretary for the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, in the keynote address.

The archbishop said waking up to the meaning of Paul’s message means the churches in AMECEA must understand that their “future no longer depends on missionaries or agents of human development from other continents.”

“Our continents’ future depends on Africans themselves,” he said.

Rugambwa underscored the need for AMECEA to “reassess its structures in compliance with Pope Francis’s call for ecclesial renewal, which cannot be deferred. I think you would do well also to reassess the operational structures and effectiveness of the Association –reviewing its modus operandi in order to make sure it is delivering the desired service.”

Celebrating diversity

The plenary, which concludes July 22, is taking place under the theme ‘Vibrant Diversity, Equal Dignity, Peaceful Unity in God in the AMECEA Region.’

It is a theme with significance for the region, given the stories of war, crises and conflicts that have been afflicting Eastern Africa. From the collapse of Somalia, the refugee camps in Tanzania, to the humanitarian situation in the Horn of Africa, the social responsibility of the Church is stretched to the limit.

“During this plenary, we will not only be looking for solutions, but we also pray for lasting peace in the region,” Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel, the chair of AMECEA, told Vatican Radio.

The cardinal said resolving these conflicts begins with celebrating the region’s diversity which he describes as “a beautiful gift from God.”

“We feel that ethnic diversity is a positive thing given by God, and it is important that we respect each other and respect each other’s ethnic background and at the same time emphasize the human dignity that is in each one of us,” Souraphiel said.

The cardinal also pointed to the example of the good relationship in his country between the country’s dominant Oriental Orthodox Church and the small Catholic community.

“As you know, the Catholic Church in Ethiopia is numerically a minority church, which is about 1 percent of the total population, but it lives rich and deep gospel values shared together with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church which preserves the old Christian patrimony, tradition, spirituality, and culture. These patrimonies are shared by the Catholic Church, too,” Berhaneyesus said.

The linguistic diversity in a region with some 200 ethnic groups has very often been exploited by politicians to amplify ethnic differences.

But Bishop Bernardin Francis Mfumbusa of Kondoa in Tanzania believes it is still possible to forge a sense of unity in the region.

“There are very big differences between different ethnic groups. That’s why sometimes harmony is not possible,” he told Vatican Radio, insisting however that “unity is possible if we have the will.”

“If we sent out the message that we as Catholics can work together with other ecumenical groups, with our Muslim brothers, I think the politicians will get the message,” he said.

The bishop also implied tensions were often stirred up by those outside of local communities.

“In general, people at the grass roots level don’t have any problems,” said Mfumbusa.